Digital editing 101 – Working out the basics

editing1.jpg So, welcome to the LONG overdue post of photo editing basics. If you’re a competent image editor and know your way around Photoshop, then this series will be of no use to you, but to those who are new to or unfamiliar with photo editing, hopefully this series will help you learn a little more about how to really make your photos shine!

Now, the first thing you need to do is make sure you have a capable software. Ever since I received a basic crash course in Adobe photoshop back in high school (on tiny tiny little Apple computers now considered vintage, mind you!), Adobe has always been my choice of editing software, from graphic editing to audio and movie editing (I know, I’m a jack of all trades and master of none).

When it comes to editing my photos, I use both Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop as part of my workflow, and I find that they do a great job and are easy to comprehend, especially to the self-taught user.

However, I managed to get these with student discounts and educational bundles which made acquiring them fairly cheap, but they may not necessarily be something you can account for in your budget, so here’s a list of the most common photo editing softwares that you can compare and look into:

1. Adobe Photoshop (Win/Mac)_-US$649.00
This is one of the market leaders when it comes to image manipulation, and whilst it provides a vast array of functions, its easy for the everyday photographer and computer user to get lost. One of the down sides of this program is that it is a form of destructive editing, in that all changes are made directly to the image file, and the history tool allows you to backtrack the last 20 steps. Unless you’re happy to spend quite a few hours learning the ins and outs of this program, I’d probably steer clear and leave this to those who have some use for an in-depth editor such as this.

2. Adobe Photoshop Elements (Win/Mac) – US$99.00
This is an extremely paired down version of photoshop, designed to be used almost exclusively for image editing. Though it is far more user friendly to the beginner, te trade-off is that you also lose a lot of manual control for touching-up finer details. However, this is a great program for people who just want to be able to press a few buttons without too much fiddling around.

3. Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 (Win/Mac) – US$99.00
Photoshop Element’s direct competitor, this program is very similar to the above. Personally, having started using Photoshop when I was taking digital art in yr10, I find Photoshop to be the easier program, but you may need to give this a try to see if you prefer it.

4. Ulead PhotoImpact 12 – US$89.99
I have to admit that I’ve not used this program before (in fact, I’m downloading the trial as I type this), but from the reviews I’ve read it appears to be a snappier alternative to Corel’s Paint Shop Pro, and more tailored than the former to photo manipulation. From most reports, it also appears to be a good software for your intermediate user – those who are fed up with the limitations of something like Picasa and want a little more manual control for tweaking, but aren’t quite ready to go the whole hog with something like Photoshop.

5. Adobe Lightroom (Win/Mac) – US$299.00
This program takes all of Photoshop’s photo editing elements and compiles them into a simple, easy-to-use, non-destructive editor. You still need some knowledge of the various aspects of photography to make full use of it, but it doesn’t require as in-depth knowledge as Photoshop and is extremely intuitive to use. So long as you know a little about photography and image manipulation, its a program that won’t be too difficult to learn to use.

6. Apple’s Aperture (Mac) – US$299.00
This was the first image editing program released for professionals, and is in fact the product that sparked the creation of Lightroom in order to compete. Like Lightroom, it is a program aimed at serious photographers rather than general designers, and makes great use of the intuitive, non-destructive editing process that it pioneered. The only flaw here is that, being an Apple software, it is only available to Mac users, which means the rest of us Windows bums have to do without.

7. Google’s Picasa (Win/Mac) – FREE
An extremely limited photo editor, this is a program designed to be used by the hobby/casual photographer who really doesn’t want to bother with learning much about the process, but wants to be able to just click a few buttons and have instant results. As is to be expected, it is extremely limited in function and does a far from perfect job compared to all the programs listed above, but it is a lightweight program which is ideal for anyone with very little image manipulation and computer experience to use.

8. GIMP (Win/Mac/Linux/Unix) – FREE
Want the finer control of the expensive programs, but don’t want to pay a dime? Then this program is the way to go – it is a free program developed by a community of volunteers who contribute their time towards its development, and from what I’ve seen, it is quite a good program! Like photoshop, you can get down into the nitty gritty of layers and masks, or keep the editing simple with easy-to-find menus for fiddling with brightness and sharpness. However, as this is a destructive editor, you will have to be careful when editing and make sure that any changes are saved as a copy file, as saving down onto the original means that you will lose the original image and not be able to go backwards.

Right, so now that you’ve got the software ready and rarin’ to go, there’s a few starting points that we need to discuss:

Firstly – remember, with photo manipulation, LESS is MORE. Especially if you’re not sure of what you’re doing and using a destructive editor (an editor that makes the changes to the actual file, thereby ‘destroying’ the original data). If you’re using one of these editors, never ever make the changes to your original photo, instead you should create copy the file to a new folder (good idea to keep all the edited photos together) and make the changes to the duplicate file. That way, if you muck something up, you still have the original photo to create a new copy from.

Secondly – photo editing is meant to enhance the image, it is not some kind of voodoo magic, it cannot turn a crap photo miraculously into a good one. You should always try and take the best photo possible with your camera, paying particular attention to focus/sharpness, white balance and exposure, this will mean you have to spend far less time fiddling with the photo in post-production and the editing process will be far less painful.

Thirdly – another camera related point is that you should always take your photos at the best quality and highest resolution possible. Why is that? Because this means you’ll experience less of a drop in quality when editing and resizing the photo later on! Sure, the file sizes may be pretty big (each photo off my camera is roughly between 6-10 mb each) but I think that in the end, its pretty worthwhile!

Fourth – STAY AWAY FROM OBVIOUS EDITING! One thing that I notice a fair bit is an almost obsessive overuse of the blur and smudge functions that must image editors offer. Whether it is to try and simulate DoF (depth of field) or blur out an unattractive background, the results do very little for enhancing the natural beauty of the food you’re photographing, and often serve as more of a distraction. A sheet of thin white cardboard or a roll of wrapping paper is just a few dollars, and is a better alternative to hand-blurred photos. Another thing that really gets my goat is over-lightening, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.

Fifth – Make sure your monitor is displaying colours probably, i.e. calibrate your screen. Now, my current LCD monitor has an iffy white point which I, for some reason, can’t fix, so I know that images that I view on my machine will probably appear slightly differently on others or when printed. This site has a great, easy to understand series of pages on monitor colours and calibration which is a good starting point for you.

editing2.jpg Here’s the image that I’ll be using for this guide. Other than the fact that is a less than stellar photo (slightly crooked, inconsistent background etc), you can also see that its just a touch on the dark side, the colours are muted and the focus could be snappier. Nonetheless, its a good starting point for editing your photos.Now, when it comes to basic photo editing, there are a few key things we are looking at:

1. Lighting/Exposure

2. Temperature

3. Colours

4. Sharpness/Clarity

5. Cropping/Resizing and saving your images

These are the basic building blocks of photo manipulation, of trying to really bring your photos to life without crossing the border into the realm of digital art, so feel free to work through the links and let me know if you have any questions or need a bit of help figuring something out :)

[tags]photos, editing, illustration, photo manipulation, photography, tips, guides [/tags]


  1. i’ve always wondered and heard about lightroom. i guess i shouldn’t be afraid to try it! thanks!

  2. Not at all, it’s a wonderful program that I couldn’t live without!

  3. 😆
    I am eating this up. I need it so badly; thanks a million.

  4. Thanks for your lovely comment! :) I’m glad you found this info handy! :)

  5. I agree , Photoshop is the best tool for photo editing however some time it is good to have additional software to improve some details in the picture that it is harder to improve in Photoshop. Photoshop remains the best tool for photo editing and web design creation.

    • Photoshop is a fantastic tool, but the complexity of the program and the amount of knowledge/skill required means that it’s not that fantastic for those of us who aren’t familiar with how to use every aspect of it. That’s why I actually think that Adobe Lightroom is a better tool to use for those who are only interested in doing minor edits to their photographs.

  6. Just when I thought I was getting close to figuring out this lossy & lossless stuff I thought that since PS is so expensive that it was non-destructive. I had read once about Lightroom being non-destructive, well back to the books. Why am I so hungry after reading this article, hmmmmm.

    • I definitely recommend Adobe Lightroom – it’s cheaper than Photoshop and is completely loss less because it doesn’t actually alter the photo file in any way, so that if you do stuff things up while editing, you can always backtrack to the original image :)

  7. great article. i have a background in video production and graphic design however, as silly as it may sound, photo editing is something i wanted some direction in. this is the first article that showed the basic principles of photo editing. (the five key things to look for was exactly what i was looking for) Thank you.

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